reviewed by Amish Trivedi
As ever, I am interested in the abstraction of “the road,” the place where things are open. There are no rules, no taboos, and the world lays out before the driver, spreading itself against the landscape while providing direction and motivation. One must reach the other end eventually. In Video Tape, Andrew Zawacki takes us on a sort of journey, not one that is always physical. Here, technology becomes the way with the support of one of the oldest technologies: language.
And when I talk about language here, I should add that Zawacki excels wonderfully in using language as a mix-n-match: old, new, English, French. Even the title of the book plays a sort of game: the Video Tape is a dying, if not already dead, technology. Still able to hold massive amounts of information, it has been surpassed many times over by newer technology, by newer ways of handling the passage of information. But the language of Zawacki’s book is not stilted in any way, like obsolete technology you curl your nose at when you see it.
This is because language must ultimately adapt, to become new, though we can question whether language is capable of death even though it clearly must have had some kind of beginning. In Video Tape, the word usage feels fresh, like the words themselves have not been used in some time and are appearing here courtesy of Zawacki’s attuned ear alone. From the first page, Zawacki is pushing against language like a spring:
when I move: figures astray from the mercury dark — shatterproofless, shutterproofless, image noise
Turning the adverb “astray” into the verb breaks the line, causes it to feel incomplete while at the same time we have a general understanding of what is being written. We also begin to see more of the technical language that Zawacki uses throughout Video Tape, technology we thought might have become obsolete but we continue using it. I specifically mean the language of cameras, which has not faded so much as it—like language as a whole—has adapted to the modern, digital world. That which was analog is now ones and zeros.
Repeatedly, Zawacki plays on sound. It is playful but serious at the same time, creating a strange juxtaposition between what we should take as fun with sound but coarseness of meaning:
Villanelles of an aniline, analog tide
Read that aloud and hear the “-an” sound repeated throughout. It pops up again on the page as other sounds are mixed in, like slowly adding ingredients that could potentially curdle the original. However, as Zawacki works additional sounds in, new aural sensations are created on the page, a kind of tension between language and the space in which he is experimenting and testing himself within his work. There is always the stress of things interacting badly, a risk that any writer worth their salt should undertake in the course of a manuscript. It is that rare published work which engages
us in this risk, asking us to mix in our own influences of sound and experience into that work.
Fortunately, though, nothing curdles or becomes unpalatable—the risk, the possibility of a text not working, ultimately pays off. As the book progresses, it builds through various movements and ideas, taking these basic elements of language and playing on them over and over again, creating new sense and scenarios, all the while mixing in new concepts and ideas to further press on the constraints of what the book can hold. Split into four parts (two Track As and two Track Bs), Video Tape creates parallels and mirrors throughout. For example, both Track Bs (the second and fourth sections) situate themselves physically along the bottom of the page, like captions for photos that no longer exist. There is a history in there that is missing for the reader. They are, in other ways, footnotes without antecedents:
At ISO 800, at night, Dixie’s a garden of bayonet hoods— Nikon HB-35, 72mm, blossoming, black—
We are driven back into the technical realm here, dealing again with technology that is never quite behind us. The language of photography plays in so well with that of Video Tape, the technology we have surpassed many times over, not unlike Dixie.
Also at play in these poems is travel, at once archaic (the world is getting smaller and you can use an Oculus Rift to experience nearly anything you want) while being incredibly modern and new. We can be anywhere relatively quickly and here is how all the technology builds together in the book: we use one form to capture and another to experience. Video Tape existed to create and preserve a memory while photography now captures an experience. These technical details, strewn throughout Video Tape, are the derivative of experience, the calculations involved to correctly capture all that will eventually slip away.
The use of place in these poems works not unlike the use of technical language throughout, giving us a tangible sense of how the poems are constructed, yes, but also of how language is constructed within the poems. To put together a sentence requires one to have an understanding of how words fit into a space within that sentence, what they do and what the expectations of a reader are. Similarly, technology does not merely occur but also requires a fundamental understanding of how that technology came into being in order to correctly utilize it.
Zawacki provides us the toolkit within Video Tape to understand all these functions. In a way, it is him providing the reader a space to unpack the work that we are reading, providing within it the ways in which it ought to be taken apart, contemplated, understood, and finally placed back together in order to have it function according to the needs of the individual reader. For me, always fascinated by technologies which we have moved beyond as a culture thanks to newer technologies, Video Tape exposes the language required to not only consider these things properly but also how to discuss them outwardly. It is an interesting balance he strikes within this work, one that is challenging while also inviting. Zawacki’s poetics is one that explores while inviting you along.